The History of Glamour Photography


There’s something about those early Hollywood images. They are black and white, and relatively low-grade when compared to the HD images of today, yet still they seem alive with color and life. This ‘color’ is largely down to the efforts of two people; two out-of-towners from Ohio and New York respectively, whose names still loom large over the legacy of 1930s Hollywood. They are George
Hurrell and Ruth Harriet Louise. Without them the modern glamour photography industry would be nothing.

                                                       Ruth Harriet Louise

 

                                                     Ruth Harriet Louise

                                                          George Hurrell

 

                                                        George Hurrell


The Pioneers


Both Hurrell and Louise arrived in California in 1925 to find a Hollywood in transition. Advances in technology were paving the way for better quality pictures – both in the sense of feature films and in promotional photography – and Al Jolson’s groundbreaking “talkie,” "The Jazz Singer,” was just around the corner. Over the next 15 years, these two were responsible for some of the best known images of the day – images whose power and magic has endured over the years. Tragically, Ruth Harriet Louise died from complications relating to the birth of her child in 1940, while Hurrell continued to work in Hollywood,
off and on, for another four decades.
The images that the pair took of stars like Ann Sheridan, Olivia de Havilland, Greta Garbo and Marion Davies truly capture the zeitgeist of Hollywood in the 1920s and ‘30s, and are, in some part, responsible for our modern perception of that golden period of American cinema.

                            Greta Garbo

 

                          Greta Garbo

                         Olivia de Havilland

 

                       Olivia de Havilland

                          Marion Davies

 

                        Marion Davies

 

The Vision of Hurrell and Louise


The true genius of George Hurrell and Ruth Harriet Louise lay in their vision, and in their ability to give true beauty a platform from which it could shine. As the careers of Louise and Hurrell developed, America fell into the grips of The Great Depression; employment fell, banks foreclosed on mortgages and a solemn cloud of gloom fell upon the United States. Hollywood provided the antidote to this, and the movie producers and portrait photographers of the day set about creating ideals, creating escapist paeans that movie-lovers could take inspiration from.
Hurrell and Louise recognized this. They captured images that elevated movie stars above the level of humanity, turning them into symbols of perfection around which people could build hope. What had begun as a medium for packaging motion pictures and movie stars as saleable commodities became something more than this; it became a way to convince the citizens of the United States that there was still hope, there would still be a tomorrow and that there still would be a future after that. In a very real sense, glamour photography had taken on a wholly new element of social importance.

 

                                                  Bettie Page

 

                                                Bettie Page

 

The End of Innocence


As attitudes towards nudity and sex began to relax towards the end of the 1940s, publishers of glamour shots began to find that their audience had an appetite for something more than the relative innocence of those early pictures.
Models like Bettie Page, herself a native of Nashville, Tennessee who moved to New York in the hope of landing a movie deal, found themselves pushed into the limelight as glamour shoots became increasingly risqué and overtly sexualized. The influence that these more liberated shoots had – and continue to have – on popular culture, is tempered by the often shoddy treatment their subjects received at the hands of exploitative publishers and movie producers, who were often themselves driven underground by rigid publication and obscenity laws.


 

Glamour Today


The Bettie Page era marked a transition for glamour photography, not simply in the sense that sexuality was pushed to the forefront, but also in the way in which legislation was restructured to prevent the exploitation of young models.
As for those early years – the years of Ruth Harriet Louise and George Hurrell – their legacy continues to be felt. We see evidence of this in the proliferation of ‘old school’ and retro glamour shoots which still make the pages of mainstream magazines and publications. Without the dedication of these early glamour pioneers, the landscape of glamour photography would be very different today, and our perception of what is beautiful, what is elegant and what is glamorous would be almost unrecognizable.